Vern Summers leaned on the fence just beside the Apache dugout, watching Sanger take on rival El Diamonte from Visalia in the California Interscholastic Federation Central Section Division II playoff quarter final.
Summers had a stake in the outcome. Sort of. He played on the 1950 Apache baseball team, considered the most accomplished in school history. The 1950 Apaches won the North Sequoia League with a perfect 6-0 record that year and won the Central Section Sequoia Division Championship. The Apaches hosted Visalia High in the championship, entering in the ninth inning tied 8-8.
“The Apaches pulled out the win in dramatic fashion in the bottom of the ninth when Swede Johnson drove in Bill Krider with the winning run,” said the entry in this year’s Sanger Athletic Hall of Fame program. The 1950 team was inducted May 4. A day later Johnson died.
Sanger wants a repeat this year. Wants it bad. And that desire registered strongly in the May 10 home playoff game against the Miners, which the Apaches won 6-3. Despite El Diamonte’s Angel Valdez scoring in the top of the first inning off teammate Parker Boswell’s double, Sanger had a swift response.
Alex Avalos blasted a triple to lead off for the Apaches in the bottom of the first. He ran home on a play by the next batter, Steven “the wizard” Martinez, to tie the score.
“Win every inning,” assistant coach Sam Bejeckian said at the end of the first, with no more scores. “Good job.”
El Diamonte scored again in the second with Cole Yashida finding home plate. But the 2-1 lead was the Miners’ last. Sanger blew it out in the bottom of the second.
“I’ll tell you what, I like the way they swing those bats,” Summers said in a lull a couple innings later. “And they’re not intimidated at all, which is a good thing.”
In the bottom of the second, Sanger let loose. Ryan Esparza singled, and El Diamonte pitcher Kyle Marsh walked Apache catcher Darrin Herring. Both Apaches stole bases, putting Herring on second and Esparza on third.
Then it was designated hitter Andrew Herrera’s turn at bat. Herrera singled, sending both base runners home. Score was 3-2.
It should be mentioned that Sanger High principal Dan Chacon arrived wearing his lucky cowboy hat at this point in the game. Chacon’s presence with the hat has led to many Apache victories. And although there is no scientific connection with the hat and wins, it sure doesn’t hurt. Chacon left the hat behind when the Apache volleyball team lost in the playoffs to Clovis.
After those two runs, third baseman Nathan Padilla got hit by one of Marsh’s pitches, and second baseman Mason Lopez singled. Avalos then came up in the rotation for his second at-bat, hitting the ball deep into right field. It was caught, but Herrara ran home. Score was 4-2. Martinez was thrown out on the next play, but Padilla ran home, closing out scoring at 5-2.
Jake Harrell, pitching for Sanger, fanned his first at bat to start the third. Then Marsh, the Miners’ pitcher, took a swing at one of Harrell’s fastballs, and his bat broke. Clean. He looked a little sheepish as a teammate handed him a replacement. Then he hit a chopper toward third base.
But Padilla was there. Choppers, or a bouncing hit, are one of his specialties. He threw to Alec Flores on first. Out. Then another out. Lopez threw to first that time.
The next and final Apache score came in the bottom of the fifth. Harrell singled, and outfielder Alex Rodriguez tripled, sending Harrell home. Score was 6-3.
Rodriguez broke for home during the next at bat when Esparza’s ball got caught. But Rodriguez got tagged out.
“The third base coach made a good call,” Summers said, referring to Rodriguez’s decision to steal home base. “How often do you get a perfect throw to home?”
The Miners replaced Marsh on the mound with Chace Watson, another senior. “This pitcher looks 10 mph faster,” Summers said.
Summers played pitcher on that 1950 team. He said Harrell will be good.
Sanger lost to El Diamonte last year in the CIF Central Section playoff 1-0 in the semi-final. The Miners subsequently lost to No. 1 seed San Joaquin Memorial in the final 8-2.
This year, No. 2 Sanger played No. 3 Fresno in the semis May 15. The final is May 17.
“Good win,” Rodriguez said after the El Diamonte game. “Great win. It (stunk) last year when they knocked us off in the playoffs. (This year) we’re feeling good. We’re practicing hard. I want to win the Valley championship.”
Apache head coach David Cuellar was pleased, too. “Definitely a big hump for us to get over,” he said of the Miners’ game. “The first playoff game is the biggest. Then you settle in and do what you have to.”
Cuellar said the Miners are a well coached team.
Harrell said it was a tough game. “We won,” he said. “That’s all that matters. They (the Miners) are always good.”
Herrera, one of two freshmen on the Apaches this season, said he did his best to help his team. He said when he approached home for his first at-bat, the one that broke open the game, he wasn’t nervous. “I just cleared my mind and did what I did,” he said. “It felt great. Felt like the team had my back.”
And he said then he was confident Sanger would win.
Lopez’s single in the second was a bunt that loaded the bases. He said he was ready when he got the sign to use the batting technique. “All week we worked on bunts,” he said. “So I said (to myself), ‘It’s just another day.’ And it just worked out, and I got on base.”
Lopez said his team is playing well. “Everybody’s doing their part,” he said. “Everybody’s clicking. Everybody’s confident in themselves, and they’re finally trusting in their abilities.”
Cuellar at that point had switched the music selection in the stadium to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” Most people had left the field and the stands.
Avalos said the game was a blast. “Even though we were down 1-0, for me to get a triple and for him (the outfielder who misjudged the deep hit’s vector) not to catch the ball was a blessing,” he said. “A lot of us can hit, and we’re one of the best hitting teams. A lot of our players are special. A lot of things are special about this team.
“We’ll play (Pete) Beiden Field (at Fresno State).”